Good Leadership And The A-Rod Factor

Alex RodriguezThere’s something fundamental going on with the Alex Rodriquez fiasco. It was the same thing going on when King (LeBron) James anointed himself to play with Miami. There is something unbecoming when the ego gets oversized, overcharged, beyond respectability, beyond responsibility. It makes us a little sick to watch these great athletes eaten alive by their egos. It’s a little embarrassing.

I am writing a lot these days about leaders who adopt an upside-down vision of human flourishing, to use N. T. Wright’s great language. This is the vision that says we live in ways that are self-sacrificing, self-giving, rather than self-serving. It means that we give ourselves so that others might thrive. It means we yield ourselves for the sake of the team. It means we are not always measuring ourselves up against some self-created, self-projected image of how cool and important we are. It’s a posture thing, how we carry ourselves, how we treat each other in even the smallest of ways.

There’s an ego way of carrying ourselves and an upside-down way. We always know the difference when we see it.

Rightside-up, as our culture teaches us, allows for a certain amount of ego. It is the story of our times. Somewhere along in the fifteenth century, our culture decided to place the individual at the center of the universe instead of the cross of Jesus. The rest is history, as we say. The result is the self-focusing culture in which we live. We all do this, of course, carefully and tactfully, so as not to show ourselves too self-focused. But when we hit the outsized egos of people like James and Rodriquez, we see the dangers. This is really awful, ugly. We want to go back and renew our efforts to live upside-down.

David Brooks has written a brilliant column on the A-Rod tragedy. He talks about his own self-preoccupied beginnings as a columnist at The New York Times. When he began a decade ago, he drove himself nuts asking constantly “how am I doing?” “I was always looking for some ultimate validation,” he says, “which, of course, can never come.” This is the way we all begin our professional lives, I suspect. We need that affirmation. We go looking for it. I know I did.

But then, Brooks says, “my focus shifted from my own performance to the actual subjects I was writing about.” This is the shift we all must make in order to become good leaders, good people. I am reminded of those times, speaking to an audience, when I become focused on how I am doing. The ego literally gets hold of you. Your ideas become less important than your performance. That’s awful. I also know those times when the ideas sweep you up. The ideas become important, as they should. The ideas are the most important thing about the speech, not you! That feels right and good.

Well, says Brooks, “judging from the outside, the rest of us are pikers of self-preoccupation next to A-Rod. When you see him standing on deck or running off the field at the end of an inning, you see a man who seems to be manufacturing his own persona, disingenuously crafting a series of behaviors designed to look right.” Oh my, this is awful. This is embarrassing. Nobody likes this kind of behavior. We can’t let ourselves be like this.

“This sort of egomaniacal behavior alienated him from his teammates,” says Brooks, “isolating him in the zone of his own self-concern. He was always the most talented player on the field but never a leader. He developed a reputation for caring more about personal stats than team wins.” The ego drives us into isolation, and that’s not good. The ego is never satisfied. One gesture leads to another. Endlessly. And finally we find ourselves in isolation. This is not where true satisfaction comes from.

In the end, “at every step along the way,” says Brooks, “Rodriguez chased self-maximization, which ended up leading to his self-destruction.” The ego turns out to be the root of the whole drug scandal.

A tragedy, to be sure. A sadness, both for the individual but for our society. Is this the image we want for what it means to be successful? Throw the bum out, I say. Fay Vincent, former baseball commissioner, wants one-strike-and-your-out for these guys. That would clean things up. I couldn’t agree more.

In the meantime, we all have work to do on ourselves. We’ve got to resist the pressures of our culture to cultivate and nurture the ego. We’ve got to turn the whole thing upside-down, starting with ourselves, continuing on with our society. In the end, our lives and our work and our organizations will be better. Our society will be better too.